The effect of media and our voting decisions

Developments in political communication research have furthered contemporary understanding of explaining the impact of the media on voting behaviour (Gunter, et al., 2015, p. 10). Three elements have emerged in this regard as being influential ways in how the media shape and inform public opinion. These are news framing; agenda-setting; and priming. An analysis of these underlines the particular significance of the framing of news coverage for shaping the way people think and vote. The effectiveness of framing, however, depends on the way in which the issue in question has its agenda set and how impactful its priming is on the public.

The concept of framing is utilised by a range of social sciences. Sociologists, for instance, employ the term to describe how individuals will “efficiently process new information” (Schefuele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 12). More generally, framing is understood in political science and, in particular, media studies, as the application of “interpretive schemas”, utilised by the media to ensure consumption by the application by an audience of their own interpretive schemas in an organised and structured manner (Goffman, 1974, p. 24; Schefuele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 13).

Framing does not, however, necessarily mean the media intend on “spin[ning] a story …[to] deceive their audiences” (Schefuele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 12). It is a tool utilised by the media to help simplify (ie ‘frame’) and explain complex issues in a way that is comprehensible to the general public. This is done by employing techniques “that resonate[s] … with … audience[s]” (Ibid., 12). The public will process this “information and presentation features” through their interpretive schemas. Framing is not undertaken independently, however, since the angle the media takes on an issue influences and shapes how an issue is perceived and consumed by the public, i.e. it informs how they think and vote (Ibid.,12).

Related to this is the concept of agenda-setting. This is where particular news items are covered in a particular way or prioritised relative to other news items. In this way, “the emphasis of … media coverage on certain issues” shapes the way the people prioritise, think about and vote on an issue. (Schefuele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 11; McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p. 2; Cohen, 1963, p. 13).

Alternatively, priming relates to the “changes in the standards … people use to make political evaluations” (S. & Kinderq, 1987, p. 63). The coverage of a news item may portray an issue to the public as salient (made possible via agenda-setting), which in turn acts as a significant factor for how an audience assess – or are ‘primed’ to assess - the behaviour of a politician/government (Schefuele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 11). Agenda-setting and priming are therefore closely related as “memory-based models” compared to framing which is considered akin to a social construct, as the interpretation of issues in the media are manufactured by the public per the information presented (Ibid., p. 13). In this way, priming is therefore seen to be closely related to and “an extension of agenda-setting” and for the purpose of this analysis, these two aspects of news coverage are dealt with in the same section below (Ibid., 11).

News Framing

The framing of immigration as a salient issue for the Brexit referendum in 2016 shows how the way in which a news item is covered can influence the voting behaviour and opinions of the public. The Daily Mail was analysed for its framing of immigration as a Brexit-related issue during the lead up to the referendum vote.

It was found that the way the Daily Mail framed immigration-related issues in the context of Brexit helped generate a negative perception of the issue which was then linked to a ‘Leave’ vote (Sogelola, 2018, pp. 131-133). This framing ensured a negative perception of the ‘Remain’ campaign and a positive tilt towards ‘Leave’ with its emphasis on border controls and limiting immigration flows. The “use of foreign classifications” when reporting on immigrants, for instance as ‘Turks’, “irrespective of naturalisation” in comparison to the reporting of Britons as UK Citizens established, and perpetuated, a divisive narrative (Ibid., p. 137). Sogelola labels this framing device as an ‘us vs. them’ approach with a significant impact on both public opinion generally and voter intentions in particular (Ibid., p. 135). She states how,

“Using negative rhetoric with reference to immigration, the Daily Mail created frames that engendered negative associations with immigration” (Ibid., p.139)

Such rhetoric “could have mobilised readers” to vote based on ideological positions “the newspaper had taken” rather than encouraging readers to form their own opinions about the topic through a factual analysis of the issue (Ibid., p. 139). Academics have argued that British newspapers play a significant role in “shaping public opinion” through their framing of immigration in a way that perpetuated a disdain for immigrants linking them to the issue of Brexit with positive associations to the ‘Leave’ campaign (Deacon, et al., 2016; Levy, et al., 2016; Sogelola, 2018, p. 128). Sogelola cites an Ipsos poll in June 2016 that identified a significant shift in what were considered to be the most important issues shaping their views of the Brexit referendum.

This found that more than a third of British voters now saw immigration as their most pressing Brexit issue compared to less than a fifth in favour of the economy (Sogelola, 2018, p. 135). Less than six months before, the economy had been identified as a significantly more important issue (Ibid., p.134-35). The way in which immigration had been framed as a negative issue supporting the ‘Leave’ campaign had shifted voter opinion and the way the public thought about immigration and Brexit, from being a relatively minor issue compared to the economy, to be a significantly more important matter well ahead of the state of the British economy (Idem). This reflects the impact of news framing on public opinion allowing to explain one way in which the media impacts public opinion and subsequent voting behaviour.

The way in which climate change has been framed by news coverage in the United States further underlines the significant way in which media organisations can affect voter intentions and thinking. Nisbet highlights how the US public and Obama Administration’s had markedly different views on how pressing climate change was compared to other issues. Of twenty policies identified in US polling, “dealing with [climate change]” was judged the least important domestic priority among US citizens (Nisbet, 2009, pp. 1-2, 15; Press, 2009). Yet, it featured as among the top five priorities of the Obama Administration (Nisbet, 2009, p. 22). Maibach and Nisbett both argue that this marked contrast in approach was the consequence of news framing such that climate change was identified as an ‘environmental issue’ of marginal consequence with strongly negative economic effects if climate change mitigation efforts were undertaken. Conversely, the Obama Administration tried (and failed) to frame the issue as an economic and scientific one (Maibach, et al., 2014, p. 295; Nisbet, 2009, pp. 2-5).

Here, Nisbet identifies the “two Americas” – a polarised electorate divided by fragmented news coverage - as exacerbating the gap between the Administration’s priorities and those of the wider US public (Nisbet, 2009, pp. 18-19). Due to the variety of “contrarian views on climate change” across a cross-section of media outlets a “false impression that there was limited expert agreement on the causes of climate change” was created (Nisbet, 2009, p. 19). This framing of climate change as a contested socio-political issue emboldened sceptics and simplistic policy responses in much the same way that immigration was framed in the UK during the Brexit referendum.

Interestingly, Nisbet reports that the attempts to counter climate change deniers enabled the framing of the issue of one being led by the elites against the general public. Former US Vice President Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth appeared to simply reinforce that sense of alienation from ‘middle America.’ Nisbet observes that

“the news media has [focused on] … overdramatization, [something] sceptics can easily exploit to dismiss climate change” (Nisbet, 2009, pp. 19-20).

This further emphasises the impact of news framing in influencing public opinion to a degree that causes polarisation regardless of whether the issue is legitimately a concern. In a similar way, the news framing of immigration during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 served to demonstrate how a complex and multi-sided issue can be framed in a simplistic way that deprioritises solutions, in favour of slogans that support particular perspectives – in this case in favour of the ‘Leave’ campaign.

The analysis of news framing as an instrument to affect the way people think and vote has revealed two key points. First, in the context of the CLCH example it reveals how in an environment where the media is fragmented and politicised, news framing can help deprioritise an issue, when the preferred response can be framed as being deceptively simple. Second, revealing a link between news framing and the perceived negative impact of immigration by the Daily Mail should inform the way people think and vote in the Brexit referendum. In this case, through the negative framing, it was possible for the news coverage to present the control of immigration flows as being directly related to the Leave campaign.

Agenda-Setting and Priming

The previous section has explained how news framing can play a role in influencing how people think and vote on complex issues like immigration, Brexit, and CLCH. This is not, however, the sole determining factor.

The extent of the Daily Mirror’s agenda-setting capacity was significant. This is because the Daily Mirror is the highest ranked national newspaper “in terms of readership, with over 29 million readers” (Ibid., p. 130). Sogelola reports how between April and June 15th “leading up to the polls”, an analysis of the agenda-setting activity of the newspaper was conducted (Ibid., p. 131). This showed an 88% increase of immigration-focused articles, overtaking the issue of the economy as the central focus of the referendum (Ibid., p. 132). This is significant not least because prior to the survey only seven immigration-related articles had been generated by the Daily Mail with its avowedly ‘Leave’ focus (Ibid., 131). The newspaper’s shift in setting the agenda led to a sharpened focus on immigration and a reprioritisation of the economy in the context of the Brexit referendum.

Given the causal relationship which agenda-setting highlights between how the “priorities of the media” influence “the priorities of the public”, this shift by the UK’s largest nation-wide newspaper had a significant impact on the way people thought about Brexit, i.e. whether to ‘Leave’ (and regain “control” over immigration) or to ‘Remain’ (in the EU) but “hand over” control of immigration, to the ‘faceless eurocrats’ in Brussels (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p. 31; Sogelola, 2018, p. 130). Indeed, the extensive coverage of this issue leading up to the vote reflects the power of agenda-setting including because it “makes people think an issue is important”.

The role of media priming of issues also helps shape the way people think and vote. The 2005 UK General Election saw Labour under Prime Minister Blair win a third consecutive term, securing a majority of three hundred and fifty-five seats. Nevertheless, this represented a decline with Labour having lost forty-eight seats (Fisher , et al., 2005, p. 1). Some have argued that this decline in support was a consequence of the Blair Government’s support of the US-led Iraq War and the attendant priming of the issue through the media with consequent effects on voter thinking and decisions (Evans & Andersen, 2005, p. 824).

In this regard, a detailed study considered whether media coverage – and particularly its priming - of the Iraq War had affected public perception of Prime Minister Blair (Stevens, et al., 2011, p. 548). Priming of the public by the media coverage did not occur via partisan news ‘echo chambers’ where readers had “their … views confirmed.” Instead, the study reports that media coverage actually polarised “consumers of the same news” (Ibid., p. 547). The authors found that those who disagreed with the Iraq War effectively disapproved of the Blair government and this affected the way they thought about the Government’s performance with consequent effects on voter behaviour. In particular, Stevens et al conclude that media framing of the narrative around the Iraq War helped account for the decline in Labour’s support (Ibid., p. 546).

Because coverage of the Iraq War was extensive and - most importantly - polarising, the way the public would vote in the election was affected. The war was primed by the news media’s coverage as determining factor in evaluating the Blair Government among the public. It is important to note that the effect of media priming during this election period would not have occurred without the agenda-setting process of the extensive media coverage of the Iraq War. Without it, the assumption the Iraq War played a role on the performance of the Blair Government would not have been substantiated, thus reflecting a link between agenda-setting and priming as a result.

While these three elements, news framing appears news framing, agenda-setting and priming, are inter-related, the more significant factor of framing shapes and influences our voting behaviour.

The Daily Mail during the Brexit referendum reflected a determined framing process by the newspaper, in shifting public opinion from focusing on the economy to believing immigration was more important regarding Brexit. This showed how framing was a significant and key factor in shaping voter behaviour during the Brexit referendum.

The framing of climate change in a polarized manner had implications on public opinion as this was an effective counterpoint to the Obama Administration’s attempt to implement strategies to help combat it. Similarly, the role of agenda-setting in terms of the immigration issue as a salient topic complimented its framing as a Brexit issue by the predominantly right-wing UK media.

Finally, the effectiveness of media priming on the public regarding the Iraq War as a reflection of the competence and leadership capacity of the Blair Government, helped explain its relative decline of support during the 2005 election. Each example has reinforced how important news framing is in terms of shaping and informing public opinion and voter behaviour, but also highlights how agenda-setting and priming compliment the effectiveness of framing. The interplay between traditional forms of media and modern alternatives via social media ought to be considered to continue understanding the impact of the media on the public opinion as the new decade commences. That said, all three elements identified here are likely to endure as the core medium for understanding ways in which the media can impact the way people think and vote.


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